F’ville city manager answers complaints
Letters from four people identifying themselves as Fayetteville residents, a Fayetteville business owner or as concerned citizens have lodged a number of concerns and complaints against Police Chief Steve Heaton, Maj. Kevin Gooding and, to a lesser extent, some city employees and the Fayetteville City Council.
Among the allegations made toward Heaton, and to a lesser extent toward Gooding, included charges of a hostile work environment with high stress, harassment of employees, a high turnover rate among officers, a lack of support for officers, pressuring officers to write tickets and a diminished number of officers on duty per shift.
Central to the complaints are several allegations concerning the police department that are being investigated by an outside investigator. Still other concerns in the far-reaching letters deal with issues that are outside the city’s sphere of control.
The complaints last week dealt primarily with allegations leveled against Heaton and Gooding, the top two people in police administration. Portions of the information from the complaints was obtained from police officers, according to copies of the letters received by The Citizen.
Other allegations noted the firing of a 17-year veteran black officer for insubordination and discipline experienced by another black officer.
Asked Thursday about the complaints relating to allegations such as high stress, harassment and a hostile work environment, City Manager Joe Morton said, “These are things the (outside) investigator will look at.”
Morton said an independent hearing officer will review the allegation that a 17-year officer was fired for insubordination when he would not write a ticket to a fellow officer after that officer was involved in an accident. Morton said the termination is currently under appeal.
The investigator will also look into the allegation that another officer was given extreme discipline after being involved in a wreck. Morton said he is unaware of the specific allegations at issue, adding that the investigator will look at possible violations in the case. Morton also noted that neither he nor the mayor and council were aware of the allegations and the other volume of charges until the letters were received last week.
In other issues, one of the letters maintained that a police officer told the writer that more than 40 officers have left the department in the past six years. When asked the reason, one of the writers was told it was due to the lack of pay raises in the past several years, morale in the department and a lack of support from the department and City Hall.
Morton said city records show that 37 officers have left in the past seven years. Annualized, said Morton, that equates to a turnover rate of approximately 10 percent per year.
An affiliated complaint dealt with the police department being short-staffed and having only four officers on duty per shift.
Morton noted that the effects of the Great Recession hit Fayetteville particularly hard, with the city losing approximately 25 percent of its property tax revenue since 2008 and experiencing a significant decrease in the amount of the sales tax revenue it had experienced in prior years.
That reduction in revenue led the city to decrease the number of staff in the past few years from 166 to 115.
As for the number of officers per shift, Morton said the police department currently has a total of four teams that work 12-hour shifts. Three of those teams have five officers, while one team has four. Prior to the recession teams had six officers per team.
Morton said the City Council at its winter retreat authorized the police department to work back up to six officers per shift and to use overtime until that occurs as long as the funds expended don’t exceed the department’s budget.
One of the letters noted that officers from other shifts had to be called in for the recent fire at Weatherly Walk Apartments. Morton agreed, saying that the fire department also called in additional crews.
“It’s what you do in a significant emergency,” Morton said.
Another issue in the letters dealt with a number of longtime city staff that have retired and returned as part-time employees, leading one letter writer to question, “Who is running the city?”
One of those is Morton, while Heaton is scheduled to do the same later this month. Whether Heaton’s position will be filled with a full-time chief has not been determined by the council.
Pertaining to the retirement and re-hire as part-time staff, Morton said those retirements and the consolidation of a number of other positions in city government will save the city a much needed $300,000 in personnel costs this year and nearly $500,000 next year.
Still another complaint alleged that Heaton helped his son acquire a position with another law enforcement agency after the son received two DUI charges. Morton said he was not aware of Heaton’s advocacy for his son, adding that advocacy would have been outside the city and would not be investigated.
Yet another complaint alleged that Morton and the council were attempting a “back-door sale” of the city’s fire department. That issue was proposed nearly a year ago as another cost-cutting approach to offset costs as the city attempted to weather the recession. It ended with the council voting to continue to operate its own fire department.
There were still other complaints of businesses moving out of the city and others becoming run-down.
Morton was not asked to respond to these complaints because a local government cannot prevent a business moving out of a city, it does not control lease amounts that some previous tenants, as in the case of the Fayette Pavilion, cited as a reason for their departure and a city cannot force a property owner to expend funds to renovate an old shopping center as long as the owner is operating the center within the confines of the city’s ordinances.
One of the things a city can do is to create options for redevelopment. Voters approved such a measure in November through the Tax Allocation District referendum as a way to offer an incentive to a developer to renovate or replace some of the city’s aging shopping areas. The former council attempted to do the same thing four years ago but a majority of the city’s voters opposed the measure.